Thursday, September 25, 2008

Before I Die / by Jenny Downham

Truth sits upon the lips of dying men. -Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

16 year-old Tessa lives waiting to die. Terminally ill from a young age, she and her parents have exhausted all available options. Now in her final months Tessa stares down fate alongside family and friends until, in an effort to 'feel' alive, she embarks on a 'list of things to do before dying'. Sex, drugs, crime, love, fame, reunite parents, etc., each item is heedlessly pursued even as the necessary treatments and transfusions sustain her steadily depleting health.

Readers won't confuse Tessa's list with any media-friendly, 'Make-a-Wish' endearment. It's a resentful pastime despite any sentiment; only reaffirming her impending exit from a world that will continue without her. But not all's bleakness. As days, then weeks and months pass away Tessa's made 'aware' of each conscious experience (good and bad) amidst her vanishing livelihood, recieving what's given even after all is lost.

Frankness more than sadness gives this story its distinction as Downham illuminates the eternal fate with a rarely-glimpsed authenticity. A first-person narrative, it's dying seen through someone. Tessa's situation is unique but her behavior won't deny any real reactions or consequences; her illness doesn't make her a saint or forgive abuse. Her family and friends--perhaps more emotionally wrought than herself--still maintain intimacy with her, not some fragile creature. It's this deeply intrapersonal tone that edges the drama toward its staggering climax, depicting life's final moments like nothing before it.

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